Addressing Stress At Work – Legal Update
Easton v B&Q PLC
In a recent case, the High Court made an important judgement on the issue of reasonable foreseeability of an employee’s illness. The Claimant, Mr Easton was a successful manager at a B&Q branch. However, he became ill through occupational stress and alleged this was due to the negligence and/or breach of statutory duty by his employer. A significant argument by Mr Easton was the lack of risk assessment by the employer in relation to stress.
Mr Easton was away from work with depression for about five months and received medication and therapy. When he returned it was on a phased basis at a store nearer his home address which was less busy than the store he previously managed. In the end though, this did not work out and he was recertified as unfit for work due to depression, and launched a claim.
The question in this case was whether the injury was reasonably foreseeable by the employer.
According to the Judge an employer has no general obligation to make searching or intrusive enquiries and may take at face value what an employee tells him. In particular, an employee who returns to work after a period of sickness without raising issues is usually implying that he believes himself to be fit to return to the work he was doing before.
On the facts of the case Mr Easton’s claim failed at the first hurdle ‘foreseeability’ in respect of his first breakdown. This was because of his long managerial career in charge of large retail outlets with no psychiatric history. As to the relapse suffered by Mr Easton, B&Q clearly now knew he had suffered a psychiatric illness. But the fact he was still taking medication was not determinative as to how his employment should have been handled. There are many people holding down demanding jobs who still require medication. On the facts, given the high standard of proof required, the relapse was also not foreseeable by the employer.
There remained the issue of the lack of a general risk assessment. But B&Q had a document about managing stress, inviting individuals to identify and notify the employer of any symptoms concerned. The Judge was of the opinion that Mr Easton had made insufficient efforts to do this and therefore concluded that, on the facts of the particular case, a wider risk assessment would have had no effect on the outcome.
This case highlights the importance of stress management policies and making them available to staff as well as duties that arise once employers are on notice about an employee’s health concerns.